Should D.C. School Reform Act give more power to charter board?

I’ve written much about the hearing before the D.C. Council earlier this month regarding a bill to increase transparency of the city’s charter schools. However, there was a fascinating discussion that occurred towards the end of the session between Phil Mendelson, the Council chairman, and Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, that has yet to be reported.

The conversation revolved around the power that the charter board has to force the schools it oversees to comply with its rules. Mr. Pearson was asked by Mr. Mendelson what actions his organization can take if charters refuse to abide by its requests for information. For example, charters are required to provide to the PCSB minutes of its board meetings. What happens, the Council chair wanted to know, if a school decides simply not to comply?

Mr. Pearson indicated that there are number of steps his organization would take. It would start with communication from his group to the school. If this doesn’t work then a letter might go from Mr. Pearson to the school’s board chair. Alternatively, the school’s board may be required to meet with the PCSB. The charter board could also mandate that the school’s board report on the issue at one of its monthly meetings. Finally, Mr. Pearson added, if a school fails to submit material the board would begin charter revocation.

Responding to Mr. Pearson’s remarks, Mr. Mendelson likened charter revocation to taking a sledge hammer to a school to get it to do the right thing. The D.C. Council chairman alluded to the fact that the punishment seemed extreme considering the school’s indiscretion. Mr. Mendelson pondered as to whether it would be better to encode the board’s stipulations into law. Mr. Pearson answered that the PCSB does not distinguish between its regulations and statutes when it comes to information derived from schools. However, the charter board executive director did concede that charters may be more inclined to satisfy obligations if they were part of legislation. “People generally don’t want to break the law,” Mr. Pearson opined.

The back and forth between the two men is interesting for a number of reasons. I’ve written many times about the excessive burdens that the charter board places on its schools. If these commands had to part of D.C. code in order to be in effect, would this step inherently limit the data that the board seeks from its schools? Would this change impose a higher standard on guidelines established by the board?

This topic also calls into question whether the charter board should have other disciplinary tools at its disposal. Should it be permitted to withhold funds if a school is not responding appropriately to the board? Perhaps a grade on compliance should be incorporated into the Performance Management Framework?

As we grow and mature as a local charter school movement these matters will almost certainly increase in importance. However, for today, we will worry about open meetings and FOIA requests.

Bowser administration reacts to End The List campaign with misleading facts

D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn recently released a report entitled “Citywide Landscape of Former DCPS Facilities Remaining in Educational Use or Government Owned” which is a clear attempt to blunt the attack on Mayor Bowser’s administration regarding the withholding of more than 1 million square feet of surplus DCPS space that by law must be turned over to use by charter schools. The criticism is the recent focus of the DC Association of Chartered Public School’s End The List campaign and the Open the Doors of Opportunity effort led by the Center for Education Reform.

The DME’s publication is highly misleading. It claims that there are only three schools, for a total of 385,000 square feet, that are currently empty and “undergoing DCPS programmatic review.” The document states that these buildings have not been deemed “excess” according to D.C. law. The former traditional schools are Langston, closed in the mid-1990s; Spingarn High School, shuttered in 2012; and the Winston Education Campus, also closed in 2012. If these schools cannot be classified as excess, then I do not understand what structures will ever land in this category.

The report lists seven schools that have been turned over to entities for other purposes. There are another 16 buildings classified as being occupied by District agencies. One of these is Ferebee-Hope that is being offered to charters through a request for proposal.

Strangely missing from the schools listed in the addendum to the government’s study are Hine and Randall, two of the five former DCPS sites that Ms. Bowser turned over to private developers.

We also do not see any data on the DCPS schools that are operating with significant under-enrollment that could be used for charter school co-locations.

There is only one overriding theme that one comes away with after reviewing this material. If Muriel Bowser wanted to, she could provide a permanent facility for every charter school that needed one. Instead, after 20 years, charters are still struggling to identify adequate space in which to operate. The search is a major distraction from the mission of educating children, and is a significant contributor to the continuing presence of an academic achievement gap in our city that is currently at about 65 points. It is the largest one in the nation.

It appears crystal clear now that there is only going to be one way to ensure that empty DCPS structures are turned over to charters. This will be through the courts. Who will have the guts to take up this challenge?

Lack of transparency by charter leaders will lead to D.C. Council transparency bill passage

I have spent considerable time listening to the testimony of charter school supporters before the D.C. Council last week regarding the bill proposed by Charles Allen that would require these schools of choice to adhere to the open meetings law and force them to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. I’m frankly not impressed. It appears that the unspoken strategy that our side employed was to advance the argument that this legislation would do nothing to improve the quality of the education that children are receiving. It did not work. In fact, I feel that we simply allowed those in favor of these requirements to offer the consistent line of reasoning that since charter schools are receiving taxpayer money they must be responsive to the public’s desire for as much information about their operations as is available, just as is the case with any government entity. However, charter schools are not part of the government.

We should have taken a different approach. What we did not explain, and there was plenty of evidence to make this point, is that charter schools in the nation’s capital are under attack. We could have shown through the power of the printed word that there are people out there, specifically certain reporters, that appear to be on a mission to see these schools vanish from the face of the earth. We could have quoted articles that have gone after the salaries of school administrators, have criticized as evil an organization whose mission is to turnaround low performing institutions, and that have bemoaned schools for contributing financially to organizations established to defend their integrity. We could have illustrated the efforts of teachers’ unions to undermine our existence.

DC Public Charter Board executive director Scott Pearson came closest to offering the line of reasoning that I am proposing. He stated:

“We recently received a request made asking for all emails DC PCSB staff have sent with a lengthy list of recipients going back to 2015. A preliminary search returned an estimated 3.2 million pages of responsive documents. So far, we’ve been able to narrow the request to 1.9 million pages, but the requestor has been largely unwilling to work with us on reducing it any further. We estimate this will take three employees working full time over a year to review all of these documents. Imagine a school dealing with this, and the diversion of resources from student facing work.

Another recent example is a multi-part request that we completed. This request ultimately took nearly 500 hours of staff time to complete. That amounts to one staff member spending 12 and a half work weeks focusing on this issue alone. I would also note that, under current law, there is a very high threshold for a request to be considered overly broad or onerous.”

We should have shouted that if you pass Mr. Allen’s legislation, that on the face of it appears well intended, the open meeting law and FOIA will become a weapon in the arsenal to shutter the charter movement. Make no mistake about it. Schools will be targeted and there will be nothing they will be able to do in the face of these new requirements.

A shinning light came in the form of the remarks by Shannon Hodge, the co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS. I reprint them below:

“Good morning, Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso, and members of the Council. I am Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Ward 6. This morning, I would like to share a few thoughts about the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. I have testified before you on several occasions regarding how charter schools in general are transparent and how Kingsman Academy specifically takes additional steps to open our operations and decision-making to important stakeholders. For example, our board meetings are open to the public and we announce them on our website. We have a Faculty and Staff Advisory Council that meets regularly to share their concerns and suggestions and provide feedback and perspective on initiatives under consideration. We utilize student and parent focus groups to make sure that we are responsive to stakeholders’ questions and concerns. And with the Transparency Hub of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), we can be assured that the public has access to relevant financial, performance, policy, and procurement information in a clear, straightforward manner.

Despite this level of access, I have seen very little family or public interest in the routine governance matters of my school. Although every one of our board meetings since May 2015 has been open and publicly posted, we have had members of the public or school staff appear only twice: once to present a proposal to the board and once to observe a board meeting as part of our accreditation process. The types of sensational headlines that may appear once per school year in the city do not reflect what typically happens at our board meetings. And, unfortunately, I do not know that anything in the legislation before you will prevent those headlines. Adding constraints on those meetings and requiring certain people to be on those boards only adds to the bureaucracy.

I have four specific asks as you continue to consider this legislation. First, I ask that you not substitute the DC PCSB as a de facto central office for charter schools. The DC PCSB is not equivalent to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). It does not operate any schools. Its primary responsibility is to determine whether charter schools stay open based on the goals that we have adopted and agreed upon in our charters. Asking the DC PCSB to provide technical support and assistance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) clouds its role and our work. As it currently stands, charter schools pay the DC PCSB millions of dollars per year to support its work. Kingsman Academy alone pays more than the equivalent of what we would pay a full-time teacher’s salary and benefits to the DC PCSB on an annual basis. Your requiring the DC PCSB to provide assistance with this legislation will inevitably lead to the cost of that support being passed along to charter schools. Please do not punish schools by adding costs that our funding cannot support. Instead, set up a special purpose revenue non-lapsing fund for compliance with this legislation.

Second, I ask that you talk to school leaders, especially of small, single-site charter schools like Kingsman Academy, to hear directly how this proposed legislation will affect us and to use that information to refine the bill. With past legislation, such as the school discipline bills led by Councilmember Grosso, this Council very deliberately engaged school leaders over a period of time to strengthen the proposals.

Third, I ask you to consider the provision of this legislation that would define the boards of public charter schools as public bodies for FOIA purposes. Will the city cover our legal bills related to FOIA compliance, as it does for other public agencies? If you are willing to consider us as public bodies for this purpose, are you also willing to provide the 11 percent match to our teachers’ retirement contributions as you do for DCPS? Are you willing to pay for modernizing the buildings that we own?

Fourth, I ask you to consider whether the problems you are trying to address with this legislation are actually served by it. As I think about the DC students who are dying due to gun violence, the disparities in student performance for students with disabilities and the students designated as “at-risk”, this legislation seems to call your attention away from the most significant problems facing schools in this city.

Thank you for your time and your attention to this matter. “

Testimony of Scott Pearson, executive director of DC PCSB, regarding the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

Yesterday, Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Education as part of a public hearing on the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 and Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019. I am reprinting his remarks today with commentary to follow in future posts.

Chairman Mendelson, Chairman Grosso, Councilmember Allen and councilmembers, thank you for inviting me to speak today on the issues of transparency and accountability for our city’s public charter schools. I am Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the Public Charter School Board.

The Public School Transparency Amendment Act would require public charter schools to be subject to the DC Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and several other requirements.

As I testified in June on another piece of legislation, we support the requirement that board meetings of public charter schools be made public when discussing expansion, budgets, or closure. We believe that there need to be a few closed session exemptions to account for areas where public charter schools as independent 501(c)(3)’s are different from government entities. This includes exemptions for information concerning individual students or staff or matters that would materially affect their competitive position in relation to other schools. By adding clarity to the law, it will benefit both the school’s boards, families, and staff.

To me, transparency is an essential part of the public charter school concept. It goes hand in hand with flexibility and accountability.

The question for me is not whether charter schools should be open and transparent. The question is what is the best way to achieve this end. Our primary goal is that our schools ensure students perform well academically. We have worked for years at the Public Charter School Board to make more information available to the public in the smartest way possible.

• When it comes to how public charter schools spend their money, every public charter school is subject to an annual audit by a third party certified public accountant approved by a committee of the Public Charter School Board, the OCFO, and OSSE. Those audits are published on our website, along with schools’ IRS tax returns and their annual budgets. Each is verified and accessible to anyone who wants to take a look. In addition, we require schools to break down their expenditures into four categories – occupancy, personnel, student support, and administration — so that school expenditures can be compared with each other on an apples to apples basis. This report is released to the public through our Financial Analysis Report.

• Looking at school operations, performance and governance, we post schools’ charter goals, their student handbooks, average high and low teacher salaries, academic data, student commute maps, enrollment and demographic data, annual reports, at-risk funding plans, and contact information for the school’s board. This year we are adding to this board of trustees meeting calendars, including which meetings are open to the public, approved school board meeting minutes, the current salaries of the five most highly compensated individuals in the organization, and the contact information for key staff.

• We post on our website extensive information about our oversight of each school, including a school’s five- or ten-year review and renewal reports, equity reports, performance reports, compliance review reports, and detailed writeups from our classroom observations.

All the information I’ve just described is publicly available and easy to locate on our website. We’ve tried to include everything a family would want to know about a school. If there is more information folks want, we are certainly open to discussing how we can make that available.

I have noticed that many have been conflating “transparency,” with FOIA. FOIA is a tool of transparency, one which we believe is inappropriate to apply towards small, independent 501(c)(3) organizations. It is a blunt instrument that will do little to provide families with the information they need and want while having the potential, through its cost and time demands, to take resources away from the school quality goals we all share. If our goal is transparency, FOIA misses the mark, especially for families with limited time and resources.

Years ago, policymakers decided to address the issue of sunshine in public charter schools by making DC PCSB subject to FOIA. As a result of working closely with schools across all issue areas, we can provide most, if not all, of the information sought after by the public. We receive requests from all types of citizens including journalists, academic researchers, union representatives, parents, and teachers. For FY 2018, the sum of requests totaled 73. This year, we have already surpassed that number.

But the number of requests only tells part of the story. The key metric in assessing a FOIA request is the scope. Some freedom of information requests are narrow and can be completed in under an hour. However, larger requests can take hundreds or even thousands of hours to complete and have the potential to paralyze a small organization. This is where our overall concern lies.

In recent months, DC PCSB itself has received multiple requests that encompass hundreds of thousands of responsive documents and will require hundreds of hours of review. There is a multiplier effect on the staff cost and hours. Documents must generally be reviewed by multiple staff members, including those with a legal background, to ensure that no protected student data or other confidential or privileged information is accidentally released.

Let me provide two recent examples:

• We recently received a request made asking for all emails DC PCSB staff have sent with a lengthy list of recipients going back to 2015. A preliminary search returned an estimated 3.2 million pages of responsive documents. So far, we’ve been able to narrow the request to 1.9 million pages, but the requestor has been largely unwilling to work with us on reducing it any further. We estimate this will take three employees working full time over a year to review all of these documents. Imagine a school dealing with this, and the diversion of resources from student facing work.

• Another recent example is a multi-part request that we completed. This request ultimately took nearly 500 hours of staff time to complete. That amounts to one staff member spending 12 and a half work weeks focusing on this issue alone. I would also note that, under current law, there is a very high threshold for a request to be considered overly broad or onerous.

I would hope most schools would not regularly receive requests like these. In fact, some schools may not receive any requests at all. But I would also expect schools experiencing turmoil, the schools that can least afford to spend time digging through and reviewing emails and other documents, will be the ones impacted.

Since many schools do not have an in-house legal team, much of the work of information gathering and review will fall on teachers and staff. Therefore, most will need to work with outside attorneys who are not on school email systems, and do not have the ability to search through the communications of staff. In practice, this means the work of searching will likely be performed by the teachers whose work is implicated by the request. The results will then be sent to the legal counsel to apply any exemptions and redactions, at a substantial hourly fee.

There are more effective and efficient ways to satisfy the public’s desire to understand the work of public charter schools. FOIA will not give families information on their student’s performance or IEP decisions they can’t already obtain under federal law. FOIA will not improve communication between families and schools. FOIA will not help a family understand a budget. FOIA may not even produce deliberative emails between board members, which will be searched, reviewed, and ultimately redacted.

The harmful effects of FOIA go beyond the trouble of searching and reviewing documents and emails. As members and staff of the Council know only too well, the presence of FOIA inhibits free and open electronic communication. This makes decision makers less able to engage in the kind of open electronic communication that allows organizations to operate at peak performance.

The process of FOIA takes time and focus off students and off the operations of the school. And this is the fundamental issue we have with this bill: it will do nothing to improve student achievement; instead, it will make it harder for schools to be truly excellent. We honestly believe that FOIA will not further the cause of quality schools and instead result in school spending hours and dollars that could otherwise be spent on students for a gain in transparency that we believe will ultimately be negligible.

With this reality in mind, I ask that we work together to identify inaccessible information and figure out ways we can make that public instead of subjecting individual schools to this catch-all tool of FOIA. In the long run, it will be more helpful for schools to give families and communities specific information rather than inundate them with thousands of pages of irrelevant documents.

Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019

Before I conclude my testimony, I would like to turn my attention to the Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019 to express my support. As an independent authorizer, DC PCSB is required to hold each public charter school to high standards — we must not only hold school leaders accountable for academic success, but also ensure they are acting in the best interest of all students attending the school.

Over the next two school years, DC PCSB will conduct a high-stakes review of 29 different public charter schools. Some of these reviews could result in a school closure.

Closing a school and settling its finances is a complex process that requires robust oversight. During the public charter school closure process, our oversight of school operations is hampered by the fact that the school’s charter has already been revoked or non-renewed. Our ultimate leverage is gone. As such, it becomes more difficult to address issues that may arise during the school’s wind-down period, such as those involving the school’s expenditures and finances; oversight of school personnel; and cooperation with the transition efforts of the acquiring school in the event of an asset acquisition.

The ability to impose conditions will help DC PCSB perform its oversight obligations more effectively during a closing school’s final months of operation. Importantly, DC PCSB will be better able to safeguard public funds that a school might otherwise use inappropriately. For example, we could impose a condition that all of a school’s expenditures over $10,000 would be subject to DC PCSB approval, which could prevent a school leader from receiving a golden parachute. Those funds, if otherwise unspent, would go back to OSSE and be redistributed upon dissolution of the school.

The proposed bill will also help the DC PCSB ensure positive outcomes for students in the closing school, including helping those students enroll in a high-quality school for the following school year. For example, we could require that schools hire more staff if there is an uptick in safety incidents. We could require schools to offer retention bonuses to teachers or employees to help ensure students finish out the school year in a safe and stable environment. We could demand that schools turn over contact lists to our enrollment specialists or require schools to allow us to send enrollment specialists to school property to ensure families are apprised of their options.

I know I usually appear before you to advocate for preserving school autonomy, and I recognize this bill goes in the opposite direction. However, it applies only in the narrowest of cases – specifically those few months between when the board votes to close a school and when it actually closes its doors and winds down its operations. We believe it will considerably improve our ability to safeguard public funds and ensure better outcomes for students in closing schools.

As the sole charter authorizer in our nation’s capital, DC PCSB has been long committed to providing families, students, and the public with information on public charter school performance. That is why we collect and publish so much detailed information about every single public charter school in the District. DC PCSB remains committed to working closely with schools across all issue areas, to provide most, if not all, of the information sought by the public in the interest of what is best for students. Thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.

We have to stop playing politics with our children

An extremely sad article appeared in the Washington Post yesterday by Michael Kranish detailing the strong relationship Senator Cory Booker once had with Betsy DeVos revolving around their mutual support of private school vouchers and charter schools. They first started working together on education reform beginning in 1998 when Mr. Booker was asked by Ms. DeVos and her husband to speak on a panel in support of a Michigan ballot initiative backing choice. The Senator and Ms. DeVos ending up serving together for years on two boards of directors that promote school vouchers, and, as recently as 2016, Mr. Booker appeared before the American Federation for Children, an organization chaired by Ms. DeVos. The two were friends and allies. According to the Post:

“Booker spoke proudly about the growing number of students in Newark’s charter schools, saying, ‘This mission of this organization is the mission of our nation. . . . I have been involved with this organization for 10 years and I have seen the sacred honor of those here.'” 

Then in 2017, in an apparent bid to align himself with the views of the Democratic party so that he could increase his chances of becoming the group’s nominee for President, Mr. Booker voted against confirming Ms. DeVos as the United States Secretary of Education. Again, according to the Post:

“In a dramatic 2017 Senate floor speech, Booker opposed DeVos’s nomination to be Secretary of Education, saying he had ‘no confidence’ in her stance on civil rights issues, without mentioning their prior work together on pro-voucher groups.” The address lasted 45 minutes.

Mr. Booker now states that he changed his mind on school vouchers when he became Mayor of Newark, New Jersey in 2006. According to Mr. Kranish the Senator has recently referred to some charter schools as “really offensive” and “republican schemes.”

Coming up on Wednesday in the nation’s capital, there will a D.C. Council hearing on Charles Allen’s bill to increase charter school transparency. Of course, this legislation includes a requirement that charters adhere to the open meeting law and comply with Freedom of Information Act requests. Given the current political environment I have little faith that this act will be voted down, although the impact on charters could be devastating.

So I have a question this morning. If Mr. Allen’s initiative, which has nothing to do with transparency and is actually completely about the efforts of teachers’ unions to end the city’s charter school movement, passes will our city’s charters have the bravery to refuse to comply?

Let’s see whether our schools are really ready to support our children.

Why school choice is the black choice

Last Friday afternoon, my wife Michele and I attended a fascinating forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation entitled “Why School Choice is the Black Choice.” The session was moderated by Roland Martin, who my wife and I have enjoyed for years as the Master of Ceremonies for the annual Friendship PCS Teacher of the Year Gala. Joining Mr. Roland for a panel discussion was Margaret Fortune, CEO and president Fortune PCS; Shawn Hardnett, founder and executive director Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS; Elizabeth Davis, president, Washington Teachers’ Union; and Dr. Steve Perry, founder Capital Preparatory PCS’s.

The lively and argumentative discussion centered on the role of charter schools in public education in this country. Of course, anytime the subject is charters at this moment in time, the issue of transparency is brought up. Here is where Dr. Perry, who was by far the most passionate of the day’s speakers, turned the topic on its head. He pointed out that if you really want to talk about this topic then we have to be transparent about the numerous traditional public schools that are failing to teach our youth, specifically low-income black boys, and the fact that nothing is being done to correct the situation. Dr. Perry related that these schools just continue to exist day in and day out. In essence, the educational malpractice simply continues. Ms. Fortune, Mr. Hardnett, and Dr. Perry highlighted that when it comes to charter schools, if they don’t perform they are closed. In D.C., 35 schools have had their charter revoked for academic reasons.

I think Dr. Perry is on to something here. When charter opponents in our nation’s capital harp on transparency, supporters need to illuminate all of the matters that we need to be open about regarding these schools of choice:

  • The $1,600 to $2,600 per student per year that the neighborhood schools receive each year that charters do not even though by law the two sectors are to receive identical revenue through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula;
  • The over 1 million square feet of unused or underutilized space that DCPS is holding without providing them to charters as is required by law that is a major contributor to a 12,000 charter school student wait list:
  • The reality that the DC Public Charter School Board requires its schools to provide detailed information about every aspect of the operation of the schools it oversees, including financial data, and that almost all of these submissions are publicly available; and
  • The fact that no DCPS schools have ever been shuttered due to poor academic performance. Not a one.

If people want transparency, then transparency is exactly what they will get.

DC charter board about to approve two new school campuses

Last night the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting and it was one of the least controversial sessions I have witnessed in years. The session started with former PCSB board member Sara Mead receiving the organization’s Distinguished Service Award. Ms. Mead served on the board from 2009 to 2017. Here’s what I wrote when she stepped down:

“Yesterday was also the final board meeting for PCSB member Sara Mead as her term is up after eight years of volunteer service.  She will be missed as she consistently provided a rational and thoughtful voice, especially in her specialty area of early childhood education.”

On the agenda was Rocketship PCS, which is seeking to open its third location in the District in the Fort Totten area of Ward 5 during the 2020 to 2021 school year. Not discussed on Monday evening was the fiasco Rocketship created when it tried to create a school in this same area in 2018. The charter had 22 students enrolled for the additional location only to find that it was unable to secure a facility. The parents of the children that had signed up scrambled to find spots at Rocketship’s existing Ward 7 and Ward 8 sites a couple of months before the term was to begin. This mess represented the third instance in which Rocketship delayed constructing classrooms in the District. Following the experience a couple of years ago, the charter board required Rocketship to come before it regarding expansion plans with a proposed lease. Rocketship has met this condition through an agreement to rent property from the Cafritz Foundation.

The representatives from Rocketship appeared to have alleviated fears that it has not properly engaged with the local community before moving into a new neighborhood. This was a criticism the public leveled at the school regarding its first two locations. It certainly helps that its Legacy Prep in Ward 7, servicing in 2018 about 100 pre-Kindergarten three through third grade students of which three-quarters are classified as at-risk, scored a 94.6 percent as a Tier 1 school on the Performance Management Framework the very first time it has been graded on this tool. It’s Rise Academy school, teaching 527 pre-Kindergarten three though fourth grade pupils last year, ranks as a high Tier 2. Look for the additional campus to be approved.

Proceeding the discussion about Rocketship, Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts was up to discuss moving to a different location during the second half of the next school year. The charter has outgrown the “Blue Castle” where it has operated the last eight years, and the building is about to be redeveloped. The school is seeking to move to 475 School Street SW, also in Ward 6 as is its current address. The proposed property is quite a bit larger than its present campus, coming in at 62,500 square feet versus its existing 42,500 square feet. The upgraded site, which will provide an auditorium, media studio space, and a dance studio, will cost $2,000 more per student than the school currently spends. This raised concerns by the board, especially in light of the fact that Richard Wright successfully completed a Financial Corrective Action Plan in 2017. Dr. Marco Clark, the school’s CEO, testified that Richard Wright will be able to meet its operating budget by enrolling additional students and subleasing space to another charter. The board requested a revised budget representing these revenue projections, and, as with Rocketship, I anticipate this amendment being granted without difficulty in October.

On a purely philosophical note, I found the questions the members of the PCSB asked regarding future cash flow at Richard Wright to be perfectly appropriate and consistent with its role as a board. Why then could it have not initiated a similar line of inquiry when problems first surfaced regarding student safety issues at Monument Academy PCS?

Teachers’ union is flooding D.C. charter board with Freedom of Information Act requests

The D.C. Council returns to business from its summer break next week and high on the agenda is consideration of Mr. Charles Allen’s bill to force our city’s charter schools to comply with the open meetings law and the Freedom of Information Act. So if you want to get a taste of what these changes would mean for individual schools, just take a peek at what the DC Public Charter School Board is going through right now.

As a government entity, the PCSB already complies with FOIA requirements. Apparently, the American Federation of Teachers is filing nonstop requests with the charter board. The body has recently spent over 65 staff hours to fulfill seven solicitations. The final bid for documentation comes in at over 14,000 pages.

Here was the editors of the Washington Post’s view of Councilmember Allen’s charter school legislation last April:

“We are firm believers in sunshine in public matters, but this legislation — which seems to be taken from the national teachers union playbook on how to kneecap charter schools — is not designed to benefit the public or help students. It ignores the fact that the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the city’s 123 public charter schools, is already subject to both the open-meetings law and freedom-of-information requests. The board, which has earned national renown for the rigor of its standards, requires charters to disclose financial information, including how they use resources from the government and what they accomplish with those resources. Charters participate in state testing and federal accountability programs, and the charter board leads the way in providing comprehensive evaluations of charters and the job they do in educating students.”

The PCSB is apparently not taking this union abuse sitting down. According to education reporter Rachel Cohen, yesterday she was told by one of her sources that the charter board has decided it will no longer waive fees that it is permitted by law to charge for FOIA submissions. The source, who is almost certainly the AFT since Ms. Cohen is so union friendly, has been informed by the board that it will cost $3,500 “to finish fulfilling their records request.”

This is a fantastic move. The teachers’ unions have one mission regarding charters, which is to see them disappear from the face of the earth. But this activity from the AFT is highly worrisome. Could you imagine what would happen to our schools, which are characterized by exceedingly small administrative staffs, if they had to face a similar attack?

We must mobilize our local charter school movement to say enough is enough. Council members must not go along with Trojan Horse legislation that is proposed as a benign measure to increase transparency but is in reality a poison pill meant to torpedo the performance of our esteemed institutions.

The time to act is now.

D.C. charter board executive director explains apparent contradiction in treatment of Monument Academy before and after becoming chartered

In yesterday’s post entitled “No Surprise Here: Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein Don’t Like Charter Schools,” I wrote:

“It appears to be that the DC Public Charter School Board wants it both ways. The body sets as many stipulations as it wants on the front end during the application process but then denies that it has the power to impose specific corrections when a school is not operating as it should.”

I was reacting to the criticism by Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein that the charter board was aware for months of student safety concerns at Monument Academy PCS but took no action to remedy the situation. My point was that the board has no difficulty setting a long list of conditions for a new charter when it is about to be approved to open, as it did in the case of Monument, but then appears to support school autonomy when operational issues arise. Here is the public comment responding to my assertion by Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director:

“Conditions prior to opening are legally allowed as the applicant is not yet a charter school with exclusive control over its operations. Once a school has a charter it has exclusive control as guaranteed by the School Reform Act and it is then generally inappropriate for PCSB to direct a school to take specific actions. Pre-opening conditions are designed to ensure the school opens strong. Given the struggles of Monument Academy we probably should have set more.”

Mr. Pearson seemed to offer a similar line of argument to the Post when asked about the situation at the charter:

“It is always appropriate for us to intervene when health and safety concerns emerge but not always in a public meeting setting. We were not prescriptive about what exactly they should do because we do not think that is our role.”

I appreciate Mr. Pearson’s viewpoint. It helps to understand the thinking of the charter board. However, it is not completely satisfying.

When a D.C. charter school is facing serious academic problems, the PCSB sets concrete goals for continuance at the high stakes reviews that it conducts every five years of a charter’s existence. When cash flow problems arise that may threaten the ability of a school to meet its fiscal obligations, the board will issue a detailed Financial Corrective Action Plan.

Protecting the health and safety of students by law is an obligation of D.C.’s charter schools. When the board is apprised of such issues it may not have the power to issue proclamations such as “hire two new full-time security guards.” But I contend that it can set goals just as in the case of academics and fiduciary matters. In the case of Monument, it has been reported that over the last school term it reported more than 1,800 safety and security incidents.

The board should have insisted that in order for the charter to continue operating these occurrences must be reduced to a particular number by a specific date. Perhaps that number should be zero.

No surprise here: Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein don’t like charter schools

No sooner does a new school year begin then Washington D.C.’s trifecta of malevolent charter school education reporters spring into action. Last week we witnessed a tome written by Rachel Cohen attacking almost all of the city’s charter school support organizations. Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein shot an arrow directly aimed at the DC Public Charter School Board over its lack of oversight regarding problems previously identified at Monument Academy PCS. They wrote:

“Top D.C. education officials knew for months about safety issues plaguing a charter school that serves some of the city’s most vulnerable children but did not force changes, public records and interviews with school employees show.

Students at Monument Academy Public Charter School fought during the school day, routinely destroyed school property and simply left campus without permission. Complaints poured into the city agency charged with overseeing the high-profile school, and some staff members reported to their superiors that they felt unsafe. Some child advocates and parents said they thought the school was dangerous, too.”

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB, disagreed with the assessment of Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein. According to the Post:

“In an interview, Pearson said he and his staff acted appropriately as they fielded a high volume of complaints about Monument. Charter board staff members who monitored security, and behavior incidents at the school shared their findings with Monument officials.”

As a reminder, following the May 2019 monthly charter board meeting outlining the more than 1,800 safety incidents the school recorded last term, the Monument board voted to shutter the facility at the end of the school year. Then a dozen of the town’s nonprofits came to the rescue with a commitment of $1.7 million to help the school survive financially. The Friendship Educational Foundation agreed to add Monument under its umbrella. A new principal has been named and the school’s board has been reconstituted. The charter has now reopened.

Yesterday’s piece does raise some interesting observations about how the PCSB views its supervision of the schools it regulates. For example, Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein included the following comment from Mr. Pearson concerning actions the charter board took regarding Monument:

“’It is always appropriate for us to intervene when health and safety concerns emerge but not always in a public meeting setting,’ Pearson said. ‘We were not prescriptive about what exactly they should do because we do not think that is our role.’”

Mr. Pearson is reluctant to dictate the steps Monument should take, I’m guessing, because of the board’s respect for charter school autonomy. But as pointed out many times before on this space, the PCSB seems to have no issue with telling schools exactly what they need to do to open their doors. As an illustration, let’s look at the conditions Monument was required to meet to get its charter back in 2014:

  1. By July 15, 2014, the school will amend its charter petition to (a) reflect a school program that serves grades five through eight, which will also be reflect in Attachment K of the school’s charter agreement, and (b) adopt the Elementary/Middle School Performance Management Framework (“PMF”) as its goals and student academic achievement expectations, thought it may state its intention to seek eligibility for the Alternative Accountability Framework in lieu of the PMF. The school may only serve grades nine through twelve after the approval of an amendment to the school’s charter and charter agreement.
  2. By July 15, 2014, the school will develop and submit to PCSB a revised implementation plan that delineates responsible persons and activities necessary to open the school by the fall of 2016.
  3. By July 15, 2014, the school will provide to PCSB job descriptions and qualifications for the residential staff and a statement that details the operation of its boarding program.
  4. By July 15, 2014, the school will submit to PCSB memoranda of understanding and articulation agreements with the following partner organizations: Flamboyan, Turnaround, and a mental health provider.
  5. By December 15, 2014, the school will submit goals to PCSB consistent with the Alternative Accountability Framework.
  6. By December 15, 2014, the school will develop and a scope and sequence for each subject/content area taught in year one of operation that include: goals/objectives, standards, instructional strategies, summative assessments, and resources (instructional materials).
  7. By December 15, 2014, the school will develop comprehensive Social-Emotional Learning and Life Skills curricula for grades five through eight, inclusive of mission-specific accountability goals to measure the program’s effectiveness, instructional strategies, standards, and resources (e.g., instructional materials).
  8. By December 15, 2014, the school will secure a sufficient school facility that includes all necessary amenities and services for a residential school and the proposed life-skills program, as evidenced by submitting a lease or purchase agreement to PCSB. If, due to circumstances outside of the School’s control, a lease or purchase agreement cannot be secured by that date, the School commits to submitting to PCSB a detailed time line for securing a facility of not more than 60 days by December 17, 2014.
  9. By January 12, 2015, the school will submit to PCSB a signed and executed charter agreement with all attachments consistent with PCSB’s charter school agreement template (attached as Exhibit A) for PCSB Board approval.

A pretty incredulous list. It appears to be that the DC Public Charter School Board wants it both ways. The body sets as many stipulations as it wants on the front end during the application process but then denies that it has the power to impose specific corrections when a school is not operating as it should.

With these three reporters, labor unions, and politicians circling the charter school sector looking for any reason to pounce, it is imperative as a movement that we get this governance stuff right.

It is even more imperative that we protect the health and safety of all of our students.